As the coronavirus spreads rapidly nationwide, the number of COVID-19 cases in California’s prisons has risen dramatically in recent weeks, with nearly 1 in 10 people incarcerated there currently infected with the virus.
There are more than 8,800 people incarcerated statewide with active COVID-19 cases — out of more than 91,000 total incarcerated, per the state’s corrections department. That amounts to about 9.6% of people in prisons currently having the virus.
Across California’s 35 prisons, there are over a dozen prisons with COVID-19 outbreaks that have each seen hundreds of new cases in just the last two weeks. And more than 3,000 prison staff currently have the virus.
More than 100 people in California’s prisons have died from COVID-19 this year.
In protests last weekend, prisoners advocates called for the state to release more people.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (which was responding on behalf of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office as well) told HuffPost that the prison population has been reduced by over 22,000 people since March, bringing the state to its lowest prison population in three decades.
But advocates say that is evidently not enough, as COVID-19 is spreading rampantly this winter.
“They are literally killing people by their indifference,” said Kate Chatfield, policy director for the Justice Collaborative. She noted that most of the people released from California’s prisons amid the pandemic were already set to get out within another 180 days or so, and that advocates have been calling for a far more dramatic reduction of cutting the prison population by half.
“They knew this was going to happen,” Chatfield added, noting there were deadly COVID-19 outbreaks in California prisons this summer and public health experts warned of a winter resurgence. “The level of indifference to human life, the level of neglect is shocking.”
The state corrections department told HuffPost that it has implemented “robust response and mitigation efforts” to prevent the spread of the virus in its prisons, including mandating masks for all staff, screening the temperatures of those who enter facilities, and testing staff once a week in prisons with outbreaks. The state has stopped transfers from county jails since late November and has staggered dining and recreation times to allow social distancing in common areas.
However, an inspector general report from November found inconsistent screening of staff in prisons and staffers “failing to comply with the department’s face covering directives.” In a survey at seven prisons, nearly a third of staff members reported seeing staff or incarcerated people failing to properly wear face coverings.
“The majority of custody staff refused to wear PPE and when this was reported to supervisors, their repeated response was that the mandates were unenforceable because these were adults,” one anonymous prison staffer in Los Angeles County told the survey.
Meanwhile, the state as a whole has seen an alarming increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, leaving it with just 3% remaining capacity in intensive care units statewide this week, per the California Department of Public Health. Southern California has zero available ICU space.
In California — as in the rest of the country — Black and Latinx people are disproportionately incarcerated, as well as disproportionately hard hit by the virus. Across the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black and Latinx people are around four times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 as white people, and nearly three times as likely to die.
“It’s where mass incarceration smashes into racism in public health,” Chatfield said of COVID-19’s spread behind bars. “In the Black and Latino communities, they’re losing their fathers, husbands, sisters.”
The U.S. has seen a precipitous climb in daily COVID-19 cases and deaths since the fall, with a total of more than 17 million confirmed cases and over 312,000 dead from the virus so far. The nation hit a grim single-day record on Wednesday when over 3,600 people died from the virus.
Some of the country’s worst outbreaks have been in congregant settings like nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons.